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Finally! SD Plans to Replace the Current State Exam for Juniors with the ACT | Teacher Talk

As reported by SDPB on January 12, 2024 (LINK), the South Dakota Department of Education plans to replace the current state exam for high school juniors with the ACT in the 2025-26 school year. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time!

South Dakota’s high schoolers currently take one state-mandated assessment in their four years of high school. This exam that measures the effectiveness of our state’s schools and their curriculum occurs during the spring of every student’s junior year and assesses student proficiency in math, science, reading, and writing. Results are published by the state department of education and each school district.

For years, if not decades, I have watched students roll their eyes out of frustration with this exam. They know that the exam has no impact on their grades or their future; consequently, many devote their energy and attention elsewhere. Some do take the exam seriously because that’s who they are as people. Some start to take it seriously, but when testing fatigue sets in, they just finish as quickly as possible. Still others have no intention from the start to put effort into this exam. They select a bunch of answers and are done in 15 minutes each testing day, while others take 90. Even some of my juniors with 4.0 GPAs and schedules full of accelerated and AP classes gave the state test minimal attention as they were already consumed with preparation for their ACT and AP exams, which held much more weight for their futures and are also administered at the end of their junior year.

High school administrators and faculty felt their own frustration. Not only did they lose instructional time with students for a test that too many students didn’t take seriously, but they also lived with the results of those tests that affected the reputation of their school and the evaluation and redesign of their curricula. Their own unit test and semester test results looked nothing like the state’s averages of 50% of juniors declared proficient in English language arts and 43% in math and science (South Dakota Department of Education Report Card).

Several states including Arizona, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Wyoming already require that their students take the ACT, which includes tests of English, Reading, Writing, Math, and Science ( Doing so improves student buy-in and therefore test reliability. Requiring the ACT also provides one free exam to every student, saving families $68 or $93 depending on if the writing portion of the exam is included ( And finally, the test takes place during the school day, rather than a single Saturday morning every couple of months.

Opponents might say that many post-secondary institutions no longer require an ACT score for admission. While that is true, an ACT score remains one way students can achieve admission, and even more significantly, many scholarships require an ACT score. Others might argue that our state’s ACT score average of 21.1 will decrease when all students take the exam, as opposed to the 59% who currently do. It’s fair to wonder if South Dakota’s students will fall above, at, or below the national average of 19.5 (Average ACT Scores…Class of 2023). Still, no one can convince me that a lower state average should be of greater consideration than increasing the reliability of our data so that teachers can adjust curricula accordingly and increase student learning in South Dakota.

Gina Benz has taught for over 23 years in South Dakota. She currently teaches Teacher Pathway (a class she helped develop), English 3, English 3 for immigrant and refugee students, and AP English Language at Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls, as well as Technology in Education at the University of Sioux Falls.

In 2015 Gina was one of 37 educators in the nation to receive the Milken Educator Award. Since then she has written and spoken on a state and national level about teacher recruitment and grading practices. Before that she received the Presidential Scholar Program Teacher Recognition Award and Roosevelt High School’s Excellence in Instruction Award in 2012 and the Coca-Cola Educator of Distinction Award in 2007.